Vice – Melvyn Morrow challenges you in your role as judge, jury and executioner. (Theatre Review)
King Street Theatre
April 21 to May 9. You can grab your tickets here.
Image credits to Thomas Adams
It’s taken me a long time to write about Vice. I kept changing my approach, and that in itself tells you this is a piece of theatre that is very thought-provoking and worth spending those hard work-a-day dollars on, even more so considering it’s anti-timing couldn’t be more anti-perfect as child sexual abuse in snooty Sydney colleges is a contemporary hot topic. In Vice, playwright Melvyn Morrow brings to the fore one of my favourite topics, that of the power of language to obfuscate, and he questions the nature of truth when language is a throbbing force that moves around interpretation and perspective. Morrow skillfully waves his language patterns (Wittgenstein would call them games) around hot topics revealing perspective has more to do with motivation than with accuracy, and that truth is a thing that is long dead and buried. Vice isn’t a play about should’s and shouldn’t, rights and wrongs or angels and villains, it is about a microcosm of society that unfortunately perfectly mirrors its broader surrounds. If you think the topic of sexual abuse in schools is clear-cut – think again.
To be clear, and fair to Morrow, he doesn’t support child abuse, and if you have a firm and unwavering opinion on that subject, you will not be let down by this play. This is a play about perspective, leaving judgement in the hands of the people in whom it always resides, the listener, who is in this case the audience. How you feel about Vice will depend entirely on who you are when you enter the room and this is Morrow’s point, that many of these decisions are made before trials, before hearings, and often before abuse takes place. The language of Vice is easy with innuendo and metaphor and can be taken a multiple of ways. It’s up to you how you take it, and it’s up to you who you condemn and why you condemn them.
A point of contention is that Morrow doesn’t deal with the act in Vice, and that is a contention that belongs to the nature of sexual assault itself – that it comes down to a question of perspective when it is, factually only a question of crime. One is left with blurred greys where we wish there existed clarity; is an 18-year-old sexually active school boy a child; can a teacher be a victim of manipulation; does an institutionalised crime have a single, solitary perpetrator? Morrow doesn’t deviate from his position that upholds the supremacy of perspective, but in doing so, he avoids the crime itself, even if intentionally, which implies its own deeper avoidance of perhaps the real nature of the subject. It can easily be argued that schools are set up to institutionalise the freewheeling sexual abandon of teenagers, creating what Foucault saw as a mini jail, designed to protect both its inmates and society until a requisite amount of adjustment has taken place and the child is fit to enter society as an appropriately conditioned adult. From this perspective, the teacher that gives themselves to passion in this context is the horrific criminal condemned to play out the very thing society imagines exists and yet locks children away to prevent.
If Vice has a fault, it is in trying to mimic David Mamets Oleanna which is a tiresome attempt to imply an ambiguity in sexual harassment, and an insistance that political correctness is an assault on some imagined freedom of speech that was perceived to have existed previously, when “she” and “her” were absent words, and “he” and “him” were presumed to encompass all humanity. This was a “freedom” only experienced by a select few human beings at the cost of all others, who now have to include the rest of humanity in their discourse, and for this they are overwhelmingly resentful. Oleanna is an outdated play written by a dinosaur clinging to perspective when the facts are not in his favour, and displays a profound lack of courage, optimism and intelligence – David Mamets hatred of liberalism is no secret. Vice stands strongly alone, separate to the Mamet original, and it is a better play that suffers from the comparison.
This particular production at the King Street Theatre is an excellent chance to catch this challenging and interesting contemporary Australian play. Directed by the talented Elaine Hudson and produced by Emu Productions, the cast are all strong, no doubt ironing out the minor first night jitters we witnessed at the start of the productions run. A stand out is Jess Loudon as Olivia Fox, who navigates a very difficult role with gravitas and a strong stage presence. Benjamin McCann as the young Jasper Cunningham equally makes the most of a complicated role, Morrow writing him a rather physically demanding performance that he takes in his stride. Vice is a mix of the highly verbose complimented by the sparsely physical, emphasising Morrow’s point about words and ambiguities, but when it gets physical, those movements are highly stylised. Hudson directs her cast well, incorporating seamless scene changes and a strong engagement with a busy set designed by EMU arts.
This performance of Vice at the King Street Theatre is the world premiere of this interesting play, and it is well worth time and effort to make a trip down King street to see it. Make sure you take a group of friends and leave room for heated debate after. Very thought-provoking.